By Juan L. Mercado

“I OFTEN wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts,” the late Justice Learned Hand mused in a moving May 1944 speech. “Believe me, these are false hopes.”

This jurist’s caution resonates today as schizophrenia blankets the frenzy to overhaul the constitution. Do positions taken by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her praetorian guards really differ?

The President will step down after 2010.  There’s no plan to extend her term, insists Anthony Golez, deputy spokesperson of Ms Arroyo. “(This is) doomed because the people will oppose this. They don’t want any term extension.”

That’s a pro-forma nod towards the October Social Weather Station’s survey. It found that 63, out of every 100 respondents oppose tinkering with the constitution now. That resistance, in fact, has persisted over the last eight surveys, SWS’ Mahar Mangahas recalls.

But the President’s clan, in contrast, collars every congressman to sign a resolution that’d anoint themselves to rewrite the Constitution — now. Main peddlers for the constituent assembly option are the President’s sons:  representatives Juan Miguel and Diosdado Arroyo. The President’s brother-in-law, Rep. Ignacio Arroyo rides shotgun.  So do regime stalwarts Speaker Prospero Nograles and Rep. Luis Villafuerte.

They all peddle the same line:  A new constitution will usher in deferred hopes of a country of economic stability and expanding freedoms. Are these false hopes?

The British never had a written constitution. Yet, its writ reaches throughout their realm. Indeed, a constitution “sums up, in legal form, the moral judgment a community has reached.”

Americans amend their constitution on basic issues. The First Amendment, for example, covered freedom of speech, religion and peaceful assembly. The Chinese scrapped Mao Ze Dong’ strictures to tack on a provision guaranteeing private property. “It is glorious to be rich,” Deng Hsiao Peng proclaimed.

Filipinos itch to rewrite charters. An irate public and Catholic bishops clobbered President Fidel Ramos. Only then, did he drop plans to revise the constitution to wangle a crack for a second term. People Power II ousted the often-soused Joseph Estrada when he’d barely made tentative stabs at charter overhaul.

Ferdinand Marcos stitched in the notorious “Transitory Provisions”. That locked in his 14-year dictatorship as a “New Society”. We still haven’t tallied the final bill for the ruins.

“A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few, as we have learned to our sorrow, ” Justice Learned Hand said in that New York   Central Park address. .

Lusting to seek the presidency in 2010, opposition leaders have kept mum about charter change.  The statuts quo suits them just fine, as it does President Arroyo. She won’t stop her sons from pressing cha-cha, Press Secertary Jesus Dureza says. “Everybody has the right to do whatever they feel is within their democratic rights.’

We’re being stampeded to keel-haul a document that is the “repository for a nation’s ideals, the beliefs that it cherishes, and its permanent hopes.” It’s not engraved in stone.  Sure. Nor is it perfect.  And it should be revised in line with a changing world and the people’s own experience.

But the last thing to do is rewrite it in haste. And how should it be done? By congressmen in a constituent assembly (“con-ass”)? Or by delegates, elected to a constitutional convention (“con-con”)?

Legislators of integrity are outnumbered by political barbarians: Thus, a con-ass would be “a place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals; but the betting odds would be stacked in favor of Judas.”

Reason, free of passion, stands a better chance in a con-con, CBCP president Angel Lagdameo thinks.  So do an overwhelming number of civil society groups and citizens. They propose this drill come after the 2010 elections.

Former UP president Jose V. Abueva lofted a suggestion: Elect delegates to a constitutional convention in tandem with candidates in the 2010 elections. That’ll save expense for a separate con-con election. The 1987 Constitution does not need to be rewritten entirely. It has many good provisions that deserve to be retained. So, the con-con needs funding only for six or eight months.

But the “irresistible force” of Malacanang ambition is already bucking the “immovable force” of public distrust. Tensions are ratcheting.  A noise barrage has erupted. The first of interfaith rallies is planned. “We’ll join that one even if I have to walk with my cane,” said former Sen. Vicente Paterno.  Clashes in the streets loom.

Now is the time to recall what Justice Learned Hand said on that warm May morning 64 years ago. “Freedom lies in the hearts of men and women,” he stressed. “When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to save it.”

He added:  “The spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind the lesson  that it has never learned, but never quite forgotten…,(t  hat) there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered, side by side, with the greatest. “